Policy Committee explores wrongful imprisonment in Pennsylvania

Lawmakers encouraged to find justice for exonerees

HARRISBURG, Jan. 19 – Exoneration is the action of officially absolving someone from blame by using DNA testing or other means to prove innocence. Pennsylvania has had more than 100 people exonerated in the past 30 years – many of whom have served 15-30 years before their release. While incarcerated, these individuals missed birthdays and anniversaries, were separated from their communities, deprived of their freedom, and subjected to the trauma of incarceration.  

The House Democratic Policy Committee's Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People explored exonerations in Pennsylvania and steps the legislature can take to support those who have been wrongly incarcerated by the criminal justice system. 

"When a person who is exonerated is released, they have no pension, no Social Security contributions or livable wages from the years they were imprisoned. Nothing to provide the financial stability that is so vital to re-entry," said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Phila., chair of the Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People. "While money can’t give back the years, and it can never make up for all the moments of joy and sorrow that were missed, the funds can give these individuals financial compensation and some of the tools to rebuild their lives." 

Pennsylvania does not currently provide financial compensation to exonerated individuals. Thirty-six states, including Washington, D.C., have some type of payment to exonerated individuals. 

Those who testified during the hearing included Dr. Chinchila Jonesiafounder, "RIGHT THE WRONG" Coalition and “BE A VOICE;” Caroline Turner, legal advisor and consultant, criminal defense and wrongful conviction attorney; Vincent Moto, co-founder, "BE A VOICE;" criminal justice reborn and exoneration compensation advocates; and Terrell Johnson, founder, The Terrell Johnson Project, Pennsylvania exoneree.  

Vincent Moto explained the impact his wrongful incarceration of 10.5 years had on him and his family. His compelling testimony demonstrated how entire families suffer when people are wrongfully imprisoned and not able to provide for themselves and their families during and after incarceration. Advocates encouraged lawmakers to create a package that helps those who are no longer incarcerated get back on their feet.  

“We need to have due diligence in the legislature so that those who have been exonerated can reintegrate into society,” said Rep. Regina Young, D-Phila. “My legislation would create a long overdue remedy to the years of hardship endured by those wrongfully convicted of crimes. I am proud to welcome amendments that focus on housing, and economic support that are sorely needed and I appreciate my colleagues working on legislation that ensures a smooth transition back into society for those who have been exonerated.”  

Dozens of representatives joined the hearing, including Reps. Ed Neilson, D-Phila., Kevin Boyle, D-Phila., and Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, who all stated that the testimony was so powerful that they will now sign on as a co-sponsor of Young’s bill.

Information about this and other House Democratic Policy Committee hearings can be found at www.pahouse.com/policycommittee